The Content of Evangelism & Discipleship

Content:

What is the content for disciple-making? What are we delivering, what are we sharing?

This is a very basic question to ask. By basic, I don’t mean easy, necessarily. I mean logically basic, or foundational. You’ve got to have this question answered first. Before you begin making disciples, you need to know what you are giving, what message, what content. What is the subject matter.

Another reason for this question being so important is all the different answers that are in the world today.

  1. Some say personal, life experience is what you are sharing with someone.
  2. Others say rules and behavior, to make someone conform to a certain lifestyle.
  3. Others say it is as broad as public education (anything you would learn in school is discipleship material).
  4. Some Christians imply that it is secret, or special knowledge that is transferred to disciples (in contrast to “normal” Christians).
  5. And some churches think of disciple-making more about practical than cognitive content: training, skills (like this obsession with “leadership” seminars that they seem to have).
  6. Fundamentalism has narrowed the content down to a list of “fundamentals” with a whole lot of rules about what activities you’re not allowed to do (drinking, dancing, movies, etc.).
  7. Liberalism has done away with doctrinal content and replaced it with community service, social work, and political activism.
  8. The program-driven churches see the “content” of disciple-making to be activity, or service. Kid’s programs, youth programs, fun and games, small group activities, small group Bible studies, prayer meetings, evangelistic outreaches. If you’re really growing, you’ll do things like set up the chairs The most spiritual activity of all: short-term missions trips. Sure proof that you are a mature disciple.
  9. And the individualists, who view disciple-making as purely personal and anti-institutional (apart from the local church), see the content as personal disciplines: personal prayer, personal Bible reading/study (aka “quiet time”), personal evangelism, and maybe some “fellowship” (whatever that means). Discipleship is all about teaching them these skills.

So, who is right? Well, some are more wrong than others. To find out what the content for disciple-making is, we need to look at Scripture. And many of those listed above cite Scripture (some less than others!). Of course, when it comes to justifying beliefs and practices, select parts of Scripture are not enough, but the whole breadth (tota Scriptura).

Word/Gospel

We will argue that the content for making disciples is the Word of God, in general, and the Gospel, in particular. Notice that I am not distinguishing between evangelism and discipleship; we are not separating them. The content for both is the same.

How do we think about the content of evangelism versus the content for discipleship, usually? We tend to separate the two practices, and say that the content is different for each. The Gospel is for evangelism, supposedly. And the rest of the Bible (but not the Gospel) is for discipleship. The Gospel is to get you into Christianity, then you move on from the Gospel to everything else the Bible says, for your discipleship.

Now, is this an accurate view? No.

Paul didn’t just talk about Jesus as he evangelized; he talked about creation, God’s decrees, the judgment (Acts 17:22-31). And in every letter he wrote to the churches (Christian disciples), he focused on the Gospel.

Evangelism and discipleship are not two different kinds of things. Rather, it’s the same subject matter, the same content, just in different situations or contexts; a different audience. If you’re talking to unbelievers, you are obviously evangelizing. If you are talking to believers, they are already disciples. But even there, with disciples, they still need the Gospel. We still need to be “evangelized” all through the Christian life.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is central to both evangelism and discipleship. And the whole Word of God is the subject matter for discipleship and evangelism (at least implicitly).

*Why am I starting this way? Because I detect that it is not understood here, very well. Usually, I only hear the Gospel preached when it’s specifically targeted at unbelievers. But, if there’s only “church members”, the Gospel usually is not mentioned at all. So clearly, what unbelievers need to hear and what Christians need to hear are two different things.

But they should not be separated as to different kinds of things. They are distinct, but because of context; not distinct in content.

The Gospel cannot be understood on its own. The message about Jesus Christ fits within the larger redemptive context of the whole Bible. And you see this in the sermons preached in Acts. The whole Bible is the framework, the “covenantal context” in which the Gospel is interpreted.

So, in “evangelizing” to unbelievers, they need more than just a narrow “Gospel presentation.” They need broader instruction from the rest of Scripture to make sense out of the good news.

The Gospel is the climax, the center, whole point of the Bible. The Bible leads up to it, then expounds it. Jesus said that the entire Old Testament spoke about him (Luke 24:25-27, 44-48). That means, you are not actually teaching or preaching the Bible correctly if you leave the Gospel of Jesus Christ out.

So, in “discipling” believers, in teaching or preaching to Christians, the Gospel must be central! Every sermon must include the Gospel. The Gospel is the center of Scripture, so disciples cannot be taught from Scripture properly without the Gospel. Disciples constantly need to be reminded of the grace of God provided in Jesus Christ. That’s the primary motivation for obedience, in fact. Indeed, every text is implicitly a Gospel text. If it’s telling us to do something, then it’s Law that shows us how we fall short of God’s requirements, and shows us our need for Christ’s righteousness and death. If it is a grace text, then there’s the Gospel. In short, if we are not “evangelizing” disciples, we are not discipling correctly.

It should be clear, then, that the body of content for making disciples is the Word of God, in general, and the Gospel, in particular. Your audience will change (believers or unbelievers), but the content will not. What do we use to evangelize unbelievers? The whole Word of God. What do we use to disciple Christians? The Gospel. Both are true.

This explains why we will spend so much time on doctrine in this class.

Once more, from the Westminster Shorter Catechism:

Q. 89. How is the Word made effectual to salvation?

A. The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching, of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.1

(1) Neh 8:8-9; Acts 20:32; Rom 10:14-17; 2 Tim 3:15-17

Notice how the Catechism doesn’t distinguish one part of the Word (the Gospel) for “convincing and converting”, and another part for “building them up.” It’s the whole Word of God that is made an effectual means of salvation, for the conversion of sinners and the edification of believers.

Just like Jesus said: teach the Word. And just as the Apostles did. This should shape our methodology of evangelism and discipleship.

Go back to the Great Commission: what was the second thing that the Lord Jesus command the disciples to do, to make disciples? Teach. And what did he say to teach, in order to make disciples?

“teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matt. 28:20)

Notice that keyword: “ALL”. Not a few things. Not as little as possible. Not a bare minimum. Not a “mere Christianity.” Everything. Jesus’ commission is not a lowest-common-denominator approach. ALL!

Disciples are to be taught to obey all the words of Christ. That means the whole Word of God. All of it is the content for disciple-making. Nothing is to be left out. Clearly, the Apostle Paul understood this, declaring that:

. . . I did not shrink back from proclaiming to you anything that was profitable or from teaching it to you in public and from house to house. I testified to both Jews and Greeks about repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus.

. . . Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of everyone’s blood, for I did not shrink back from declaring to you the whole plan of God.

—Acts 20:20-21, 26-27

Paul did not hold anything back. He proclaimed anything profitable, and in public or private settings. He did not hold back any of God’s Word, from them. That’s why he is innocent. Everyone there has been given all the information, left without excuse. No one can point fingers at Paul, accusing him of not telling them everything that they needed to hear.

The same needs to be true of anyone engaging in making disciples. Anyone that shares God’s truth with unbelievers must hold nothing back. Anyone who shares God’s truth with believers must hold nothing back (including the Gospel).

Warnings:

  1. A Misunderstanding. Don’t misunderstand: this is not saying anything about time, or how long it will take. Don’t think this means you have to dump all of Scripture on someone every time you talk. Or if you had 20 minutes talking to an unbeliever, you should said “the whole counsel of God.” That’s not the point, here. The point is that evangelism and discipleship hasn’t been done if the whole Word of God hasn’t declared. Naturally, that should take a period of time. It’s a process. If you’ve only got 10 minutes with someone, then say what you can in 10 minutes. And pick up where you left off the next time you see that person. If, by God’s providence, you never see them again, that’s not your fault.
  2. An Excuse. Now, having said that, do not use that as an excuse to not teach the whole counsel of God. Yes, making disciples is a process. You simply cannot say everything all at one time. Though that is true, do not use that as an excuse for never declaring the whole plan of God, and for not proclaiming everything that is profitable, in public and from house to house. I heard this excuse recently. The idea was that we slowly instruct and teach, so that these people [unbelievers] learn and eventually obey the Bible. Sound good and right? Yes. But, these people have been here for years, and those who have learned the basics of Christianity are still are not obeying the basic things, and the others haven’t even learned the basics (see Heb. 5:12-14). So, the idea was correct. But I don’t believe that’s actually the intention, because I don’t see any evidence of it. It was just words, without actions. The fact that making disciples is a process can be used to justify laziness, dumbing down, “shrinking back” (contrary to Paul), and not “teaching them to observe all I have commanded you.” It must be our intention to obey Christ, like Paul did. And it will be obvious over the long term if we ever did intend to declare the whole counsel of God, or just pretended to.

All that has been said obviously means that whoever is making disciples needs to know the whole breadth of Scripture. Again, ALL. That is why we will survey a lot of doctrine in this class.

Thank God that we have tools to learn the whole counsel of God for ourselves, and in turn to help us in teaching all of Christ’s words to others.

Tools: Creeds, Confessions, and Catechisms.

Apostles’ Creed is a summary of the Gospel. Know that, and you know what you need to tell an unbeliever. Of course, you don’t leave them at that level, but it is a good starting point.

Voddie Baucham, on Confessions:

Christians have always been creedal/ confessional people. And these creeds and confessions have always served at least three purposes. First, confessions of faith serve to unite believers with their historical roots. This has been important since the time of the New Testament, when Paul wrote, “And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2: 2). Paul also admonished Timothy to “follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you” (2 Tim. 1: 13– 14). And again, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed” (2 Tim. 3: 14).

The urgency of passing on this “pattern of sound teaching” did not end with the apostles or the New Testament church. This is the obligation of every Christian generation, and our confessions are an expression of our acceptance of that reality. I find it both ironic and disturbing that Christians want to (1) forsake confessionalism and (2) make disciples. The result of this is a kind of remaking Christianity over and over again. It’s a bit like having a commitment to training doctors without relying on what we’ve learned through years of practicing medicine. Certainly we must not be slaves to tradition. However, it is equally wrong to ignore tradition altogether. It’s one thing to try to improve on Gray’s Anatomy; but trying to write an anatomy textbook without relying on or referring to this influential work would be ridiculous.

Second, confessions served to clarify the distinct beliefs of various groups of Christians. For example, in the foreword to the Second London Baptist Confession, the authors wrote, “For the information, and satisfaction of those, that did not thoroughly understand what our principles were, or had entertained prejudices against our Profession.” Did you catch that? There were people who, for whatever reason, misunderstood what seventeenth-century Baptists believed, and the confession was designed, at least in part, to confront and correct those misconceptions. In other words, the confession was an apologetic!

Third, confessions serve as a standard and starting point for disciple making. As a father to nine children, I confess that the idea of bringing them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Eph. 6: 4) is overwhelming. The same is true for me as a pastor. I can’t imagine having to figure out where to start and what to teach.

Again, the foreword to the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession is helpful:

And verily there is one spring and cause of the decay of Religion in our day, which we cannot but touch upon, and earnestly urge a redress of; and that is the neglect of the worship of God in Families, by those to whom the charge and conduct of them is committed. May not the gross ignorance, and instability of many; with the profaneness of others, be justly charged upon their Parents and Masters; who have not trained them up in the way wherein they ought to walk when they were young? but have neglected those frequent and solemn commands which the Lord hath laid upon them so to catechize, and instruct them, that their tender years might be seasoned with the knowledge of the truth of God as revealed in the Scriptures.

Note that this is the foreword to a thirty-two-chapter minisystematic theology! The idea here is clear: We ought to use our confessions in the discipleship of our children as well as recent converts. This is a hallmark of the Reformed tradition, and we would do well to revive it.

—Baucham Jr., Voddie. Expository Apologetics: Answering Objections with the Power of the Word (Kindle Locations 1437-1464). Crossway. Kindle Edition.

Appropriately, we will be using Confessions and Catechisms in this class! This will serve several purposes at once:

  1. You will be instructed by them. Surprise! You’re being discipled in “Evangelism & Discipleship” class. You will learn the doctrines that are foundational to evangelism and discipleship.
  2. You will learn the content of evangelism and discipleship, the subject matter that you need to communicate to unbelievers and believers.
  3. As an example. From experiencing this class, you will have learned how the Confessions and Catechisms can be used, and so you can use them yourself as tools for evangelism and discipleship. You have had it done to you, so now you know how to do it for others. Even if all you did was copy this class and use it, you would be doing well.

The Rest of the Class:

From now on, the class will be divided into two. We will finally be getting into Evangelism & Discipleship.

We’ll cover Evangelism, the doctrine and practice, then Discipleship, the doctrine and practice.

Now, I split the doctrine in two for pedagogical reasons. Even though, as I argued earlier, the content for both evangelism and discipleship is the whole Bible, for teaching purposes will divide it. We’ll survey the doctrine that’s more directly relevant to evangelism before talking about evangelistic methodology. Then we’ll cover the doctrine more directly relevant to discipleship, before covering discipleship in practice. Rather than cover all the doctrine, then forget half of it before getting to discipleship, will have it fresh in mind.

Some doctrine is more immediately relevant to evangelism: God’s decrees, sin, regeneration, justification and adoption, repentance and faith, Jesus and his offices as mediator.

Other doctrines are more immediately relevant to discipleship: sanctification, the church, sacraments and church discipline.

Unbelievers need to be instructed in all those biblical teachings. So do Christian disciples. But purely for teaching reasons, because I know how our memories are, we’ll divide them between evangelism and discipleship.

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Ordinary Disciple-Making

The Command: Make Disciples

If we are going to study evangelism and discipleship, then we need to be sure it’s actually an obligation. Why study it, if it’s not something required of us? Making disciples is in fact a command.

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Matthew 28:18-20

The entire “evangelism & discipleship” course is comprehended in this text.

Notice exactly what is contained in the Great Commission. Jesus doesn’t just tell us a goal. He doesn’t just say “make disciples” and nothing else; he doesn’t give us the goal, and then leave us to decide how to achieve that goal. No. He actually tells us how. So if you want disciple-making according to Jesus, here it is. He says “make disciples.” That’s the goal. And he tells the disciples how to achieve that goal.

  • Goal: make disciples
  • How to achieve it: 1. Baptize 2. Teach everything.

How do you make disciples? Baptizing and teaching everything. That’s it! It’s doesn’t get simpler than that. And we see exactly this in the book of Acts. We see the inspired, inerrant, authoritative record of how the Apostles understood the Great Commission and their obedience to it. And it’s what Jesus said: Word and Sacrament. We see disciple-making in more detail in Acts 2:

So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Acts 2:41-42

Peter preached the Word, and baptism followed faith and repentance. Then, they devoted themselves to more of the Word, and the other sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and prayer. This is obedience to the Great Commission.

Again, not complicated. The picture is simple. Making disciples may be hard work, but it’s not hard to understand. If disciplemaking is complicated, then it’s because we have made it that way. That’s not by Christ’s design.

What does disciple-making look like? What does obedience to the Great Commission look like? It looks like what the Apostle’s did in the book of Acts. It’s ordinary “means of grace” ministry.

To quickly apply this: if our method of making disciples doesn’t look like that [Acts 2:41-42], then we’re doing it wrong.

Hence, our Westminster Shorter Catechism asks:

Q. 88. What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption?

A. The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption are, his ordinances, especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.  (Matt 28:18-20; Acts 2:41-42)

Notice the proof texts! The texts we have studied. The Catechism has simply formulated what the Scripture says. This is what making disciples looks like in Scripture. It’s what Jesus commanded, it’s what the Apostles carried out.

You see, God in his Word has not just given us a mission: make disciples. He has also given us the means of making disciples; the instruments to carry out the mission. We don’t need, nor are we at liberty to, invent our own means for making disciples. As if God has left us unequipped to accomplish the mission. We are not at liberty to ignore his means in favor of “new measures.” As if we are wiser than God. “Thanks, Lord Jesus, but we have a better way.” The Lord Jesus has not just given us optional tools, but he has ordained, commanded that we use these outward and ordinary means.

*Side note: this should be really encouraging to you who are studying evangelism and discipleship. If Scripture actually prescribes something, then we are actually limited in what we need to study. The subject has been simplified, for us.

The Lord Jesus has ordained the means to make disciples. And these means are consistent with the theology of Scripture. That should make sense: God will not contradict who he is and what he has said. And so, as we look at and discuss methods of evangelism and discipleship, we must remember that they must never contradict the doctrine and practice of Scripture. That’s why our Standards formulate both doctrine and practice (such as the Shorter Catechism, above). Theology must drive methodology.

God has ordained the means of making disciples. There is a divinely established relationship between the salvation of sinners and the outward means. They are not identical (that’s Rome), but they are distinct. Meaning, God is not dependent on the means. Case in point: the thief on the cross was saved by faith, apart from baptism. They are the ordinary means, but not necessary (i.e. God is not bound by them, grace is not attached to them).

However, if you think the inward grace and the outward means are separate (like most evangelicals), obviously that will result in a different methodology. Evangelicalism has effectively replaced the ordinary means with other rituals.

[A] lack of belief in the divine nature of the Church, the ordinary means of grace, and the pastoral office, lead to the belief that these things could be safely abandoned or ignored when they don’t seem to be working. This led Finney to seek better methods in the form of specially designed meetings and methods that, in Finney’s estimation, were more effective in producing converts and advancing the Gospel. Special revival meetings and other novelties were continually needed to advance the Gospel. Because the Church has so little life and power, and no divine mandate for her traditional methods, new excitements must therefore be continually sought.

—Dahlfred, Karl . Theology Drives Methodology: Conversion in the Theology of Charles Finney and John Nevin (p. 109).  . Kindle Edition.

We’ll look briefly at one of these ordinary and outward means: the Word. This is the primary ordinance, which defines the others.

Again, from our Shorter Catechism:

Q. 89. How is the Word made effectual to salvation?

A. The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching, of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.  (Neh 8:8-9; Acts 20:32; Rom 10:14-17; 2 Tim 3:15-17)

Just like Jesus said: teach the Word. And just as the Apostles did: the Word was preached and 3,000 were convinced and converted, then they devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching.

What does the catechism mean by “effectual to salvation”? Effectual means it actually gives the effect, it actually achieves the result for which it’s designed: salvation. The instrument will actually work. How then, do the instruments work? How are the outward and ordinary means made effective? The Holy Spirit makes them work. See, they don’t work on their own (as Rome says). Neither does grace ordinarily come apart from them (evangelicalism). The effect comes from the work of the Spirit of God.

It’s God the Holy Spirit that makes the Word work. Without him, there will be no effect, no salvation. The Holy Spirit works by and with the Word, as our Confession says. Notice, that especially the preaching of the Word is made an effectual means of salvation. Preaching has priority over reading. Preaching happens in church, on the Lord’s Day. The vast majority of the emphasis is placed on preaching, in the New Testament. Also, it’s simply a historical fact that the public preaching of the Word has always been a part of the Christian life, while personal Bible reading has not. What percentage of believers throughout history have even possessed a personal copy of God’s Word? When was the printing press invented?

To quickly apply this: an method of discipleship that puts all the emphasis on personal Bible reading and study is not only out of touch with the Westminster Standards (following Scripture), but with church history as well.

The Holy Spirit makes the Word effective in convincing, persuading, changing the minds of the sinner. Of converting them, turning them away from sin and towards Christ. After they have been “evangelized,” the Word is continually made effective to build them up in holiness, sanctifying them. That’s the rest of the Christian life (discipleship). The Holy Spirit makes the Word of God effective as the primary means of making disciples.

That’s just a taste, as we will go more in depth later on.

Another Reformed Creed says the same thing:

In order that people may be brought to faith, God mercifully sends proclaimers of this very joyful message to the people he wishes and at the time he wishes. By this ministry people are called to repentance and faith in Christ crucified. For how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without someone preaching? And how shall they preach unless they have been sent? (Rom. 10:14-15).

Canons of Dort 1.3

If you want God-given results, you must use the God-given means. As G.I. Williamson says, “What we need, then, is not only to seek eternal life, but to seek it in the right way.” (Westminster Shorter Catechism: For Study Classes, Kindle Location 3184). As I told my high school students: seek God’s grace in God’s way.

And now to you: seek the salvation of sinners, but seek it in the right way. Offer God’s grace to sinners in God’s way. Make disciples of Jesus, and do it Jesus’ way.

As Francis Schaeffer famously said: “we must do the Lord’s work in the Lord’s way.”

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God’s Glory and Cultural Idols: Estate

I ran across something very relevant to our context, while finishing The Lord’s Prayer, which is the 3rd and final volume of Thomas Watson’s sermons following the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

In his sermon on the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ (Matthew 6: 11), Watson first draws our attention to the order of the prayer. God’s glory comes first, before our concerns.

God’s glory is more worth than heaven, more worth than the salvation of all men’s souls. It is better that kingdoms be demolished, better men and angels be annihilated—than God lose any part of his glory! We are to prefer God’s glory before our nearest concerns. But before we prefer God’s glory to our private concerns—we must be born again. The natural man seeks his own personal interest before God’s glory.

—loc. 4278

Now, here comes the gold. As application, or “use”, of this order of the prayer, Thomas Watson says we should test ourselves: “Do we prefer God’s glory before our private concerns?” He then nails three things that I recognize as cultural idols (The Lord’s Prayer, loc. 4290). The first is reputation, the second is relations, now the third:

Estate

(3) We must prefer God’s glory before ESTATE. Gold is but shining dust. God’s glory must weigh heavier. If it comes to this—I cannot keep my place of profit, but God’s glory will be eclipsed—I must rather suffer in my estate than God’s glory should suffer. Heb 10:34.

We don’t really use the word “estate” so much. Watson is referring to wealth, profit, and not merely property. He says that a competitor for our devotion is wealth, what we can amass in this life. Is profit bad? Is wealth sinful? No, not at all. So what’s the problem? If our estate ever begins to threaten the glory of God, then that’s a problem. If God’s glory should ever suffer due to our wealth, then we are not seeking the glory of God above all things. And if God’s glory will be eclipsed due to our place of profit, we should be willing to suffer our estate for the glory of God.

Estate is a huge cultural idol. People devote their whole lives to material prosperity. That’s the end-all of life. Life-goal: estate. Isn’t it the chief end of everything else? Think about the motivation for why we prioritize so many other things in life. Why are parents told to raise kids right? So that they can succeed in life. What do we all tell students, especially in the West, is the reason to do well in school? So you can go to college. Why college? So you can get a job. Why the job? So you can make money and have a successful, comfortable life. So that eventually you can retire, and rest in your estate. All the other priorities in life are mere stepping stones to the ultimate thing: estate. Estate is the goal of life, it seems.

This cultural idol of estate has even infiltrated the church. It’s even preached from the pulpit. I have lost count of how many “sermons” I have heard on performing well in school, working hard in life, and making money. There’s no discernible difference from what the culture is saying, except for the bouncing off of Bible verses (typically ripped out of context). Congregations, children, their parents, and the elderly, all are being directed to that shining dust more than to the glory of God. At least in what’s being talked about, estate is weighing much heavier in the church.

Watson’s warning is as relevant now as it ever was. Christians have a question to ask themselves: when it comes down to a choice between financial profit or the glory of God, which will you choose? Will we prefer our profit, even though God’s glory will be compromised? It’s easy to say, “God’s glory, of course.” Well, let’s look at a specific example, to see if we have already eclipsed God’s glory.

The most obvious scenario would be remembering the Sabbath day, to keep it holy (Exodus 20:8-11). This is the clear case example, where it comes down to estate or God’s glory. God himself has set aside a time, one whole day out of seven, for us to devote ourselves to worship. Part of that is, of course, gathering together as a church for corporate worship. The rest of the time is to be occupied with private and family worship.

And what did God say about this one whole day? “You shall do no work.” That’s why Sabbath-keeping is such a good example for what Watson is talking about. What does work produce? Estate. What does God command for Sunday? No work. So that means no attention is to be given to our estate, on that day. Estate takes a backseat. Here, God is telling us explicitly that this time is not for estate, but for something else. Not only in the Lord’s Prayer are our concerns put in their proper place, but even in God’s law our labor is limited. The pursuit of estate should not consume all the time we have. Note that the 4th Commandment actually contains the command to work for six days. Again, working and earning profit is not wrong! Not working would be wrong. But just as sinful as laziness is devotion to estate alone. The seventh day has been dedicated to the Lord God, and on it we shall do no work (the word “Sabbath” means to cease). Meaning, we cease pursuing estate and focus on worshiping God. That’s why it’s the day of holy rest. Not mere inactivity, just resting from work, but a different kind of activity: worship. Not activity for estate.

Here’s the big question: how many of us, who claim to be Christians, continue to chase estate on the Lord’s Day, when we don’t have to (meaning they are not works of necessity)? How many chase profit on that day of holy rest?

To desecrate the Sabbath, to proceed about our profit and estate on the day that he has set apart for worship and rest, is to rob God of the glory that is due him. That’s a concrete example of keeping my place of profit and eclipsing God’s glory.

Will you eclipse God’s glory and carry on your personal business on the Lord’s Day? We’ll you proceed to make a profit, to build your estate, and let God’s glory suffer? On the Christian Sabbath, Sunday, God has commanded that we glorify him through worship, the whole day. But we would rather God’s glory suffer, than suffering in our estate. Remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy. That’s a true test of whether you prefer God’s glory above your nearest concerns, especially estate.

Preferring God’s Glory

So what would it look like to prefer God’s glory before estate? If God’s glory weighed heavier, what would we do? Examples could be multiplied. Let’s stick with keeping the Christian Sabbath holy.

Simply, it would mean not working. Not pursuing your profit on God’s holy day. Remember, he gives us six whole days for our estate. Six days. That’s for our estate. Six whole days for our normal business. But, how many days does God take for himself? One. It’s not even close to unfair. As if estate really suffers by working six days instead of seven.

Let’s get more specific. It means not making that sale, Sunday afternoon. It means not attending that work event, on Sunday. It means not scheduling your business trip, traveling for work, on Sunday. It means not taking that business call, right after church, when you haven’t even left the building yet. It certainly means not engaging in business with people at church! It also means, if you are an employer or have hired people to do a job, not having them work on Sunday. Finally, it means not even making business plans for the following week. It doesn’t just mean not actually making profit on the Christian Sabbath, it means not even talking or thinking about estate, either. That’s a tall order.

Perhaps our estate will be less than otherwise. Yet, we should rather suffer estate than God’s glory should suffer. Indeed, which is in reality more valuable? Our money, property, material prosperity? Or is it the glory of God? God’s glory is worth more than all of creation. But, our lives will indeed show which we consider to be more valuable. As Watson said, “Gold is but shining dust. God’s glory must weigh heavier.” Interestingly, the word “glory” is related to “heavy.”

If it ever comes down to taking a financial hit or compromising God’s glory, we should take the hit. There are many possible situations where that could happen. There’s that little saying, “honesty is the best policy.” No, not in this fallen world it’s not, especially if you want to get ahead in life. Estate will be less than it could be, if we did business the way the world does. But that wouldn’t give God glory, would it?

We should earnestly pray the Lord’s Prayer, being mindful of the order. May we all prefer God’s glory before estate.

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Q/A: The Need for Reformation?

Question:

When you say “the need for reformation”, or any other Reformed/Presbyterian person says that, what exactly does that mean?

Answer:

Aahhh “reformation.” What I mean is renovating the church according to the Bible alone. Every dimension of the church would fall under that, obviously, including church government and especially worship. The Protestant Reformation was a reformation of worship, purging it of all the innovations of Rome and returning it to biblical simplicity. And “reformation” means not creating something brand new, but returning the church to what it was from the time of the apostles. The other four solas would be included too: faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone, God’s glory alone.

In other words, returning the church to what made Protestantism “Protestant.” The irony is, the majority of “Protestantism” has moved back to Rome in many ways, especially in the doctrine of salvation and practices of worship. So, they’re not actually Protestant by conviction, but by convenience (just like Roman Catholics who are just because their parents are). Having left the doctrine that fueled the Protestant Reformation, they are not really Protestant, just non-Roman Catholic.

So in our context, Scripture quite obviously doesn’t have the final say about anything. That’s a problem at large for all Christians and churches, and they should all reform. But it is especially a problem for people/churches who claim to be Reformed/Presbyterian, because they’re saying one thing but doing another. They have Reformation theology written down and claim to uphold it, but it doesn’t make a difference on the ground. So, it’s a matter of integrity. I can respect a liberal Protestant or Roman Catholic who is honest about what they are. I have trouble respecting someone who says they’re “Reformed/Presbyterian” but acts and talks like a liberal or Roman Catholic.

Take, for example, a certain seminary of a so-called “Presbyterian” denomination, up north. I have been told that when you walk into the seminary, you see engravings of Calvin and the reformers, and you see parts of the Westminster Standards on the wall. But the teaching at the seminary is indistinguishable from the non-Reformed seminary across the street. And that is symbolic of everything we have witnessed about the “Presbyterian” churches down here.

So, “reformation” would mean churches reforming according to the Word of God. What’s added to that for these name-only Presbyterian churches is pointing out that we already have the meaning of “reformation” written down in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, and need to align with it, check what we’re doing, and get rid of all the garbage that clearly contradicts what we claim to believe.
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God’s Glory and Cultural Idols: Relations

I ran across something very relevant to our context, while finishing The Lord’s Prayer, which is the 3rd and final volume of Thomas Watson’s sermons following the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

In his sermon on the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ (Matthew 6: 11), Watson first draws our attention to the order of the prayer. God’s glory comes first, before our concerns.

God’s glory is more worth than heaven, more worth than the salvation of all men’s souls. It is better that kingdoms be demolished, better men and angels be annihilated—than God lose any part of his glory! We are to prefer God’s glory before our nearest concerns. But before we prefer God’s glory to our private concerns—we must be born again. The natural man seeks his own personal interest before God’s glory.

—loc. 4278

Now, here comes the gold. As application, or “use”, of this order of the prayer, Thomas Watson says we should test ourselves: “Do we prefer God’s glory before our private concerns?” He then nails three things that I recognize as cultural idols (The Lord’s Prayer, loc. 4290). The first is reputation. Now for the second:

Relations

(2) We must prefer God’s glory before our RELATIONS. Relations are dear, they are of our own flesh and bones; but God’s glory must be dearer. “If any man comes to me, and hates not his father and mother—he cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:26. Here hatred towards one’s own kin is devotion towards God. “If my friends,” says Jerome, “should persuade me to deny Christ, if my wife should hang about my neck, I would trample upon all and flee to Christ.”

Family is a huge cultural idol, here. Let me be clear: family is a divine institution. We’re not saying that family is unimportant. Family isn’t even our idea, actually. God instituted the family. Yet, we abuse it. Idolatry is taking a good thing and making it an ultimate thing. Idolatry has happened when God, and his glory, is compromised in favor of family. And because family is a huge part of the culture, idolatry of family is an exceedingly strong temptation.

It’s why many people are in the Church of Rome in the first place. So many people identify as Roman Catholic only because their parents do, and grandparents, etc. And there’s emotional reasons to not disrupt that family tradition. It’s based on family, not on conviction. It’s not about what’s true. Even if someone begins to figure out the errors of Rome, they don’t want to investigate further. That would create family tension. So, best to avoid the truth, burry your head, for the sake of family.

Sadly, idolatry of family often prevails among Christians.

It’s why many who actually do convert nevertheless remain in Rome. Though they be true believers, saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, they will not leave the Church of Rome (which denies all of the above). Why not? Why would they not leave to worship God in spirit and truth, in a true church? Why would they not forsake all of the rampant idolatry and superstition? Because of their family. To leave Rome would be to leave their family. Their family wouldn’t take kindly to that. Families often apply pressure, and compel conformity. It’s a hard reality, no doubt. But what has been exposed? Relations are preferred, before God’s glory.

To turn that line from Jerome, will they trample upon all to flee to Christ, or will they trample upon Christ and keep their family? Despite knowing the superstitious, pagan practices of Rome that do not bring glory to God, and are in fact abominably injurious to the Gospel, they would rather stay. Rather than offer up worship that God accepts, and therefore glorify him, they prefer their relations.

There’s another group that this applies to: true believers that are not within Rome themselves, but have family that still is. Many Christians never speak negatively about Roman Catholicism, because their relations are Roman Catholic. So, that believer will never make clear the differences between them. He’ll never speak truth over against error. This obviously means he will not evangelize his Roman Catholic family. That would mean there’s something seriously wrong with their religion, after all (i.e., no peace with God!). But you can’t say that, because you don’t want tension in the family, you know. You don’t want to hurt your relations. Again, God’s glory, by honoring his truth, is sacrificed for the sake of your relations.

Will they talk about the truth of God’s Word at any level of clarity when their Roman Catholic family members are listening? Offense is just around the corner! And we typically have enough family issues, already. But when it comes to God’s truth, and the Gospel, isn’t offense what we should expect?

Let’s get back to the words of the Lord Jesus. And let’s not tame them, but allow them to have their full impact.

If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, and even his own life—he cannot be My disciple.

—Luke 14:26

I’ll throw another quote in, just for good measure. “Show me a verse!” Okay, here’s another:

Don’t assume that I came to bring peace on the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.

—Matthew 10:34

Ironically, despite the unbiblical preference of “red letters” (the words of Jesus in red) over against the rest of the Bible, I rarely hear these words of Jesus referenced. If anyone doesn’t hate their relations, they cannot be a disciple of Jesus Christ! Jesus chose his words. He could have used different, softer words, but he didn’t. Don’t sugar-coat it. There is an antithesis being made, here. Devotion to the Lord Jesus or devotion to family. It’s an either/or. As Watson said, here devotion to God means hating your relations. There can only be one Master, not two. There can only be one ultimate loyalty, not two. Christ and his glory, or your family. Ask yourself, which is dearer to you?

Preferring God’s Glory

So, what would it actually look like to prefer God’s glory before our relations? How do we show that God’s glory is dearer?

It means pursuing Jesus Christ, regardless of what your family thinks. And sometimes that means suffering consequences. It means doing what Christ commands, even if your family doesn’t want you to. If you are within the Church of Rome, that  means leaving that false church, leaving that false worship, to glorify God in worship that he accepts. Even when your family forbids you. That’ll hurt. It’ll hurt your family, it will likely make them angry. It may hurt you. Just because it won’t be easy, doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do. Trample upon all, and flee to Christ.

It means not participating with your family in superstitious and sinful practices. This happens every year, during those manmade “holy days”, when they engage in their will-worship. Children (some are technically adults) who don’t believe those things, and don’t want to participate, are pressured and forced by their parents to join. Even with threats of all kinds. But if God’s glory is dearer, you will not yield. And your family may very well interpret it as hate. Jesus said, hatred of your family is devotion towards God.

It means being a reliable witness for Christ to your family. Hiding the truth doesn’t glorify God. Sugar-coating the truth doesn’t glorify God. Smiling and pretending that theology and worship are no big deal doesn’t glorify God. Having the opinion “that’s just their practice” does not glorify God. It means speaking the truth over against error. Speaking the Gospel and confronting falsehood. It means having those hard conversation, even with tears (true story). It means being bold enough to call what is wrong wrong, and to proclaim what Christ says, and to plead for repentance and faith in Christ alone.

We should earnestly pray the Lord’s Prayer, being mindful of the order. May we all value the glory of God rather than our own kin. May we hold God’s glory most dear.

Part 3: Estate

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God’s Glory and Cultural Idols: Reputation

I ran across something very relevant to our context, while finishing The Lord’s Prayer, which is the 3rd and final volume of Thomas Watson’s sermons following the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

In his sermon on the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ (Matthew 6: 11), Watson first draws our attention to the order of the prayer. God’s glory comes first, before our concerns.

God’s glory is more worth than heaven, more worth than the salvation of all men’s souls. It is better that kingdoms be demolished, better men and angels be annihilated—than God lose any part of his glory! We are to prefer God’s glory before our nearest concerns. But before we prefer God’s glory to our private concerns—we must be born again. The natural man seeks his own personal interest before God’s glory.

—loc. 4278

Now, here comes the gold. As application, or “use”, of this order of the prayer, Thomas Watson says we should test ourselves: “Do we prefer God’s glory before our private concerns?” He then nails three things that I recognize as cultural idols (The Lord’s Prayer, loc. 4290). Here’s the first:

Reputation

(1) We must prefer God’s glory before our own REPUTATION. Reputation is a highly valued jewel; like precious ointment, it casts a fragrant smell. But God’s glory must be dearer than credit or applause. We must be willing to have our reputation trampled upon, that God’s glory may be raised higher. The apostles rejoiced “that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name;” that they were graced, so far as to be disgraced for Christ. Acts 5:41.

Reputation is a big deal. It has a strong pull on believer and unbeliever, alike. People will do anything to make a name for themselves and then will continue to do anything to maintain that reputation. This is commonly referred to as “saving face.” They want to be liked. They want to be popular. For the Christian, this can mean compromising God’s glory. How is this done? I think the obvious place to look would be in the world, where Christians risk their reputation among unbelievers. So at work, you look the other way when shady business is going down. In education, you compromise the truth because you don’t want to hurt the institution. But, there are powerful examples of Christians who do in fact treasure God’s glory more, and suffer shame for his name. For instance, those faithful saints who held God’s glory most dear, and refused to compromise it, and allowed themselves to be trampled on in the secular media and in the courts. Certainly that’s an application.

But I see particular relevance within the church itself. One of the biggest ways reputation is preferred more than God’s glory is by throwing church discipline out the window. Don’t even think about correcting, rebuking, or disciplining anybody. You’ve got a reputation to maintain. You don’t want to lose the applause, do you? So from now on, downplay sin. Cover it up. Save those faces. Pretend like the serious errors and problems in the church aren’t really what they look like.

Another area where credit and applause can be most dear is in preaching. If the preacher desires applause, what will he preach? Certainly not the whole counsel of God. There’s some offensive stuff in that Bible. No, better to preach what everyone generally agrees with. Those things that align with cultural values. Those things that agree with the audience. Focus on the popular, nice-sounding things, like God’s love, love for mankind, the value of the individual, etc. Of course, divorced from the rest of the system of doctrine, they won’t actually be biblical anymore, but never mind that.

What would happen if you preached the Word of God plainly, not hiding the edge of that sharp sword that cuts to the heart? Well, people would be offended. But, preaching the truth plainly and faithfully glorifies God, first and foremost. But, to keep the people’s favor, many will soften the edge and sugar-coat the truth. Of course, certain methods of preaching the Bible readily lend themselves to only preaching what is popular, while all church-emptying texts are avoided completely. There is a ministry to maintain, after all.

Or missions? What’s the way to build and maintain a reputation? Never focus on differences, ever. Put your distinctive theology in the backseat. But your church government in the trunk. Partner with everyone! Get ecumenical. Forget Calvinism and Arminianism. Forget differences over church government (and forget disciplining anyone, too). Forget covenant and dispensational theology (forget baptism and fencing the Lord’s Table, too). Shoot, why not partner with Roman Catholics, as well? Forget the denials of the Gospel. Forget that the major differing views over the church, biblical interpretation, God’s role in salvation, all those things that should determine practice. But is God glorified? Look at all we’ve accomplished! But the truth has been set aside. Biblical conviction has been neglected. You have declared biblical teaching unimportant.

Prefer God’s Glory

So, what would it look like to prefer God’s glory before our nearest concerns? What would be the evidence that God’s glory is dearer to us than credit or applause? What will we do to raise God’s glory higher, in spite of our name being trampled, suffering shame and being disgraced for Christ?

The church will administer discipline. False teaching and sinful practices will be addressed, no matter who it is. It doesn’t matter if the person is a superb musician. If he’s living in sin, he will be approached, corrected, warned. Regardless if he’s a family friend. And if they are stubborn and refuse to repent, they will not be admitted to the Lord’s Supper, for the time being.

Sound doctrine will be preached diligently. Pastors who prefer God’s glory before applause will preach faithfully, the whole counsel of God. All of it. Not their favorite parts. Not the parts that harmonize with cultural prejudices. Not just the ethics. But every part of Scripture, without trimming or apology. Even those parts that confront cultural bias. Even those parts they find personally difficult. Even the parts that you know will offend some of the people in the church. Preach it all. God’s glory is first when there is the sincere intention and plan to teach the whole Bible. Certainly, that leads to a specific form of preaching, one that takes the choice of text out of your hands, and so combats the temptation to aim for applause at the expense of God’s glory.

In missions, if we prefer God’s glory above all, we won’t compromise in order to get more “results.” We will stand firm in our biblical convictions. We will be driven by biblical teaching, not setting it aside. We won’t blur the lines so that we’ll have more to report. Because our name doesn’t matter, in the end. What credit or applause we gain is not the point. God is glorified when we do his work according to his rule, the Word.

Indeed, the temptation to compromise in order to maintain reputation is strong. I feel it. Often, I don’t say what I could, and probably should, because I don’t want to offend certain people. I may think it’s because I don’t want to unduly hurt someone. But deep down, I know it’s because I don’t want to lose the favor I currently enjoy. We should earnestly pray the Lord’s Prayer, being mindful of the order. May we all value the glory of God rather than the credit and applause of men.

Part 2: Relations

Part 3: Estate

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Reflections on Teaching the Westminster Standards

I have now taught the Westminster Standards twice. I have expounded every section of every paragraph of the Westminster Confession of Faith, and every question and answer of both the Shorter, and even the Larger, Catechisms. Twice. The first time was over a 15-ish week semester. The second time was 5 days straight. Exhausting, yes. But I loved it.

I don’t want to waste the experience, and since evaluated experience is the best teacher, I want to reflect a bit. I want to think about teaching the Standards from various angles:

  • The Westminster Standards as subject matter for exposition.
  • The experience of teaching the Westminster Standards.
  • Teaching them over a semester, in an academic setting, to a certain class of students.
  • Teaching them in one week, in a non-academic setting, to a voluntary audience.
  • Finally, comparing those two rounds of teaching.

*Henceforth, I will refer to the Westminster Standards as simply “the Standards.”

Let us begin.

The Standards as the Subject Matter for Exposition

Not everything under the sun is included in the Standards. However, there is so much. It will nail, meaning confront, so many issues. And those will be the important issues.

The Standards cover a lot of ground. And they should. A ten point, one page “statement of faith” won’t thoroughly prepare you for that church you plan on visiting. It doesn’t even give the people already there a scope of what that church believes. But the Standards will tell you exactly what to expect from the teaching, worship, structure, and discipline of any church that subscribes to them.

You’ll know the summary of Scripture if you know the Standards. Yet, the Confession is brief, containing the essentials. The Shorter Catechism is short and to the point. It’s impressive what a small book the Standards do make, considering everything they contain and imply (even including the Larger Catechism).

Though the Standards are Reformed creeds, they obviously contain more than the so-called “5 points of Calvinism,” also known as “the doctrines of grace.” They are present, though they aren’t stated that way. And they aren’t necessarily front and center as you might expect. Rather, the Standards contain complete Calvinism. Indeed, this might be a newsflash, but “Calvinism” includes more than a mere five points concerning salvation. Those few points alone don’t make anyone “Reformed” or “Calvinist.” They are necessary doctrines, but by no means sufficient. Calvinism, or Reformed theology, is a complete system. And so the Standards contain not only doctrines beyond salvation, but also ethics, worship, and even church government. A full-orbed doctrine of the church is expounded in the Larger Catechism. Yes, Calvinism includes ecclesiology. Oh, and corporate worship!

Two of my absolute favorite parts of the Standards are: the Law and Prayer. What’s funny is that the Confession of Faith is greatly overshadowed by the Catechisms, on these points.

First, the Law of God. About 30% of the Larger Catechism, and 42% of the Shorter, is devoted to the Law (and they say Reformed people aren’t “practical”). Reading every word of the Larger Catechism’s exposition of the Ten Commandments was excellent. You wouldn’t get that if you only learned the Confession (the Shorter Catechism having a more simple exposition of the decalogue).

Likewise, prayer is given a thorough examination. The Shorter Catechism devotes 10 questions and answers to prayer. The Larger has 18. So, reading every word of the Larger Catechism’s general view of prayer, but especially its exposition of the “Lord’s Prayer” as the special rule, was excellent. Again, you wouldn’t get that if you only studied the Confession (like most seminaries, I guess).

Not so focused on the “abstract” after all, are we?

At the same time, there is an admirable degree of broadness in the Standards. And the broadness is the kind that I think is appropriate. It’s a proper broadness. It’s the right way to be inclusive. For example, the Standards will not restrict you to a specific view of eschatology. The Standards are covenantal, so any dispensational viewpoint on Christ’s return is not an option. But within covenant theology, you aren’t limited. Premillennialism is inconsistent at worst. What this means is that a Reformed/Presbyterian denomination cannot restrict it’s people to one perspective on the “last things.” Allowance is there for difference of conviction. Another example is the mode of baptism. The Standards are not going to tell you that your baptism wasn’t real because you used less water! I appreciate this broadness, coming from a “fundamentalist” background that allowed only one eschatological view (guess which one?) and only one mode of baptism (guess which one?). They had elevated such things to a high level of importance, such that it determined who was in the fellowship. You could not be ordained unless you signed on that dotted line. In contrast, the Standards are broad, where it is appropriate.

All of this makes the Standards a joy to expound. Their wording is near-perfect. Many times they simply quote the Bible. They are systematic, making crucial distinctions. They faithfully reflect Scripture. They are beautifully written. The Standards have become my favorite thing to teach.

The Experience of Teaching the Standards

Committing to expound the 33 chapters of the Westminster Confession of Faith is a great undertaking. There’s a lot there. Many sections make up the chapters themselves. It’s a huge time commitment, as well. More popular, because it is more direct by design, is teaching the 107 questions and answers of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. That was my introduction to the Standards. We studied it in community group at our PCA church. The Shorter Catechism is also a favorite for Sunday school. Even though it’s shorter and to the point, it will still take a while. But exceptionally rare, and practically unheard of, is the dedication to study the 197 questions and (often paragraph-size) answers of the Westminster Larger Catechism. The Larger Catechism surpasses even the Confession in some of it’s formulations. Most churches never intend to take that baby on. No sir. It’s simply too massive, and would take far too long.

Yet, it is virtually unrealistic that anyone would commit to engaging in an exposition of all 3 of those documents, and at the same time. Not one after the other, but in harmony. Trudging through the Confession of Faith, Shorter Catechism, and Larger Catechism, simultaneously. If teaching the Confession and Catechisms require dedication on their own, then tackling all 3 of the documents that make up the Westminster Standards is truly a massive undertaking.

To make that task even more difficult is the lack of books to help. To my knowledge, there’s only one book currently available that expounds the Standards in harmony: The Presbyterian Standards: An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms by Francis R. Beattie. It’s an excellent book, and one reason is because it is the only one. I have to say, it is my opinion that the fact this book has gone out of print and isn’t being published today is evidence that Presbyterians are unwilling (for myriad reasons, no doubt) to do the very thing Beattie does. That’s a shame.

One major disappointing discovery I made was with the seminary classes. I thank God for the abundance of recorded seminary classes available for free, so I went looking for some to help me prepare. I found a few. Guess what they only expound? The Confession of Faith. And that’s it. I was looking for one that expounded all 3 of the Standards. Nope. I even, out of curiosity, checked what syllabi I could find for classes that were not available. No, again. To their credit though, even if lecture time wasn’t given to all the Standards, a few courses required reading a commentary on the Catechisms.

Speaking of commentaries. There’s many available on the Confession, even for free online. There’s a saturation of studies on the Shorter Catechism, which always gets the most attention. Many are free online, also. Guess how many commentaries there are for the Larger Catechism? One. Honestly though, it’s one of the best works I’ve ever read, on anything (the quality of the kindle edition leaves much to be desired, however). So there’s plenty of help in studying the Confession, too much help on the Shorter Catechism, but only one help on the Larger. I think this disproportion also reflects on Presbyterianism. [I have since managed to find Thomas Ridgley’s 4 volume exposition of the Larger Catechism]

Since Beattie’s exposition follows (mostly) the order of topics in the Shorter Catechism, and in keeping with the seminary course being “catechism” originally, I decided to go with that order. Having followed Beattie’s outline of things twice, I now want to rearrange the order of study, for different reasons. There’s nothing wrong with his order, I just think I could achieve greater harmony on some of the subjects and be less redundant. The greatest example would be transferring the exposition of the Ten Commandments from the “Means of Grace: the Word” to right after the exposition of “the Law of God” in general. It’s simple preference. My goal is to reduce repetition and gain more coherence.

Teaching the Standards Round 1: Seminary

The seminary is purely for fulfilling denominational requirements. As far as the students, some of them are already pastoring, despite not having studied to be qualified. The rest have “ministries” within their churches. Consequently, this education is remedial in every case, but also to qualify them for ordination which will supposedly happen in the future. Yes, the students have a measure of choice in the matter. They want to be there, perhaps because they know they need to learn. Or, because if they drop out, that will mean losing whatever ministry they have. But, they have also been told to be there. Because they are in ministry, they are required to finish their studies. It’s essentially playing catch-up.

I was offered the opportunity, and great privilege, to teach a course called “catechism.” Supposedly, the course is based on the Shorter Catechism. I was invited to teach the course because I was already teaching the Westminster Shorter Catechism to high school students and for Sunday school. So, I was offered the seminary also. I thought, “excellent, but not enough.” Instead of merely teaching the Shorter Catechism (which was the intention for that course, apparently), I decided to teach the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger Catechism, as well. My reasons were multiple. First, and primarily, the Shorter Catechism is not our only creed (as Presbyterians). So it’s simply not good enough to teach that alone to those who will be officers in the church. Also, merely learning the content of the Shorter Catechism is insufficient. The Confession and Larger Catechism contain much that the Shorter does not (like ecclesiology). Third, children learn the Shorter Catechism. My high school students are learning the Shorter Catechism. But, this here is “seminary.” They can, and should, do more. The standard should be higher than high school. That’s another blog post.

These students are here to become trained and qualified as ministers in a Presbyterian denomination. Hence, they need to master all the doctrinal standards, and all they contain. They’ll take ordination vows to uphold that system of doctrine as given in the Standards. They can’t do that with integrity if they haven’t so much as read them. Until now, they hadn’t, despite having been given ministry responsibility in Presbyterian congregations already (including pulpit ministry). So, that was my audience for round one of teaching the Standards.

The course was composed of lecture, reading assignments, quizzes and exams, and a term paper. Again, it was about 15 weeks, and class was once a week for three hours. The textbooks I assigned were The Presbyterian Standards by Francis Beattie and Truth’s Victory Over Error by David Dickson (the first commentary ever written on the Confession of Faith). I mapped out ahead of time the sections of the Standards that we would cover each week, and the corresponding chapters of the textbooks, so they knew exactly what to read each week in preparation for class. I also provided a copy of the Westminster Standards which they were required to read within the first few weeks of class. So, they were to read each week, then those subjects would be covered in lecture during class. In addition, there was a quiz at the beginning of class, based on the previous lesson.

As far as lecturing, it was almost all syllabus. Occasionally I would read from the Standards themselves (but Beattie nearly quotes them, actually). It was never my intention to read the Standards in class. The students were to do that on their own time. A portion of class time was already devoted to quizzes and exams, so I wasn’t going to surrender even more lecture time to reading the Standards when they had plenty of time to do that and read their textbooks.

The pace was slower than I would have liked, but it wasn’t unexpected. There were various reasons for that. Honestly, language was an obstacle, and I know that. However, I’m persuaded that it was not the chief obstacle. Sure, a barrier was the newness of the content. Another definite barrier to their learning was the surprising level of un-Reformed theology they came to class with. That naturally affected their interpretation of the Standards and their acceptance of them. However, simple laziness to do the work required (i.e. read) was the chief obstacle. When students come to class unprepared, naturally their ability to follow a lecture is severely handicapped, even if they had the full notes in front of them. Answering cell phones, walking out of class frequently, and chronic lateness to class certainly didn’t help either. Yet, while irritating, I actually can understand all that. If you’ve already been given the job of pastoring without this study, then why do you need it? Why commit? It clearly wasn’t important enough, before. So, a lack of incentive makes perfect sense to me.

Because of all that, I remember at least one occasion where we practically had to skip a small section. We just didn’t have the time left (the combination of slow pace, too much time spent on quizzes, and lateness putting the class behind). So all those factors were negatives the first time of teaching the Standards. And of course, that means less comprehension than was desired.

I was regularly taking the opportunity to revise my syllabus throughout the semester. I would notice things that could be improved. I was also continuing to study the Standards myself. I was listening to William Still’s exposition of the Confession, reading The Reformed Faith: An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith by Robert Shaw, and reading Thomas Watson’s sermons following the Shorter Catechism (A Body of Divinity and The Ten Commandments). So, occasionally I would run across something that would need to be added. I was already thinking about the future, too. I had a hope of teaching the Standards again during the summer to one or two who had already graduated, and therefore had never studied the Standards. So instead of letting revisions pile up, I did them as the semester moved along.

To summarize round 1, the course was to qualify students for ministry, they had to be there, and they were responsible to actually read the Standards and accompanying textbooks. The pace was slow and the comprehension poor. It was an academic setting, so work and effort was actually required of the participants.

Teaching the Standards Round 2: Conference

First, why I wanted to do this. I had been informed that those who had already finished their studies at the seminary had not learned the Standards. They had passed through the “catechism” class, but left without a solid grasp of even the Shorter Catechism. So I thought that a remedial course would be helpful for a few guys who hadn’t learned the Standards (yet are already pastoring Presbyterian churches). Naturally, this would be totally voluntary. I looked forward to teaching people who actually wanted to learn. They in turn invited others to join. Two of them took charge of logistics, while I buckled down and finalized my syllabus.

The course ended up taking place about one month after the semester ended.

The format was a conference, seminar, modular course, whatever you want to call it. It was 5 days, morning to late afternoon or evening. We would break for lunch and dinner together, plus 10 minute breaks after every hour of lecture. The whole week totaled roughly 37 hours of lecture time. Being concentrated, it would be more intense simply because it wasn’t spread out over a long period of time. Less time to process, sure. But, that also meant no gaps in between subjects, so the flow was better and the connection within the theology was very clear. A huge positive was there would be no time wasted on quizzes, exams, or any of that nonsense.

A negative was there was no advance reading. Maybe one or two read some of the Standards ahead of time. Everyone was pretty much cold-starting. However, that didn’t really seem to get in the way. Even though the content was new, they could still process it.

There was more content, this round. I had revised and made some helpful additions to the syllabus from the semester. Perhaps the largest, most time consuming revision was adding citations within the notes. After teaching the first round, I realized that throughout the notes, we needed to know exactly where in the Standards whatever topic is, step by step. Beattie would refer to the Confession or a Catechism, but not cite the chapter and section, or which Catechism Q/A. That won’t do. So I went through the entire syllabus and added those citations. It turned out to be really helpful, so they knew exactly where this thing is that I’m saying. I didn’t have that the first time. It took me forever to add those throughout the syllabus. But worth every minute, without a doubt.

Since there was no time before the lecture for them to read the Standards that would be expounded, we actually read the Standards in class. Not every word, but most. I knew we would need to do this, so for this round of teaching the Standards, I had my copy of Reformed Confessions Harmonized open. It was extremely helpful to have the Confession and Catechisms synced together on the same topic. Flipping back and forth from each document would have consumed too much time. However, the Reformed Confessions Harmonized doesn’t follow the order we were taking through the Standards, or even any of the Standards. It follows the Helvetic Confession. So every time we would progress to the next subject, I’d have to look back to the contents, find where we would be, and turn there. Several times, the harmony on a subject would not include all the parts of the Confession and Catechisms, for some reason. In which case, I dropped that book and had to find my place manually. Inconvenient. So, for next time, I would like a harmony of just the Standards that follows the order of one of them (probably the Confession). More likely, I’ll have to put together my own.

Another helpful component was a cellphone app containing the Standards so they could read along, in addition to hardcopies of the Standards.

The study moved at a much faster pace, thanks entirely to my audience. Class size was the same as before, ironically. We expected more, but the majority of my target audience didn’t attend. I am thankful for who did attend. They followed quickly and the study moved along faster than I had projected. For round two, we covered all the ground we planned on. No skipping, or even breezing over things, this time.

My audience was able to follow superbly. I was shocked. It might sound terrible, but I guess I had gotten so used to teaching a particular kind of audience that I was really impressed just by the fact that these people could keep up with my normal talking speed. I asked after the first day, because it was a huge concern of mine, if they could handle the pace. Too fast, could they keep up? Every single one said it was a great pace, and they in fact liked the speed we were going at. They wouldn’t like anything slower.

They also mentioned that having the complete syllabus enabled them to follow the quick pace we were taking. And I’m thinking to myself, “I did the same thing last time, and it didn’t work out!” Frequent walking out of class, sometimes for extended periods of time, was still an issue this round, however. More than once, a participant would miss an entire subject. That seriously doesn’t make sense to me at all.

Surprisingly, we had time for quite a bit of application to their specific context. I think half of that was brought up by them! It was encouraging to hear them make the connections. Something the Standards said conflicted with what they’ve been taught, or with current practices or traditions. And they recognized it. Furthermore, they were motivated to make changes, to do something about it.

Audience interaction was really good. I’m surprised we had so much, considering how much content we needed to cover in such a short time. They were able to interact with the material. They asked intelligent questions. They saw connections within the Standards. They saw conflicts with their personal beliefs or practices. The youngest one there, grade 10 high school, asked the best questions out of anyone. I was genuinely impressed this round. The age range was 16-24, and everyone could keep up, process, interact, and apply what we were studying. Credit to them. I was encouraged that this endeavor actually was possible, and was not asking too much of people.

Comparison

Who I was teaching were like night and day.

I recognize that I can’t say this with certainty, but I do have an idea. I think that the 2nd audience will actually do something with what they learned. Their discipleship was advanced. From the 1st round, perhaps 1 or 2 of them will be changed long term. We’ll see how that goes, considering they’re within a system that’s indifferent to the Standards in theology, worship, discipline, etc.

There was more reinforcement in round 1 than round 2. Round 1 was reading the Standards, reading commentary, then lecture on top of that, then review the following week. Round 2 was single exposure, only. I can’t imagine how well the round 2 audience would have learned and retained the content if they had the reinforcement of round 1.

By far, in so many ways, round 2 was a better teaching experience than the first. It was almost entirely the audience. Despite being the same age or younger than round 1, they were simply more capable (or more motivated). Probably both. And that simply isn’t a good sign of those who want to be teachers and preachers. If they can’t follow an exposition of their doctrinal standards, how can they presume to be teachers of others? I’ve spent a whole school year teaching these people already, so this isn’t a snap judgment. They are “training” for ministry, yet are behind those that are not in training for ministry nor will ever be in ministry.

There was more correction of unbiblical beliefs and practices in the second round. I’m certain that it’s not because there was more to be corrected the second time. Rather, I’m sure it’s because there was greater comprehension the second time. Or maybe it just didn’t come out in discussion the first time. In any case, the first time, I was surprised by what beliefs and practices, that were contrary to the Presbyterian Standards, were still being held by the time they got to my class. They’ve been in the Presbyterian church for years, now. And they had been studying for 1-2 years already. The second round was even more surprising. One participant had already completed his studies, and still had those same beliefs intact! Every day, almost every lecture, something was nailed. A discussion would follow, objections raised, back and forth. Anger or dissatisfaction with previous (incorrect) teaching and practice, and for not being corrected until now, usually followed these moments. And now, having experienced that, they don’t want that to happen to anyone else, and are thus motivated to teach sound doctrine. It was great. That’s how it should be.

I can only conclude that that’s the theological state of the rest of those who are in ministry. This only validates the plan to teach the Westminster Standards. It’s painfully obvious that it is desperately needed.

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